Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, is documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals. Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.
In early December, you could find me walking up the steps to Sloan for my interview. The school’s main building is nestled by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was my first time in Boston, but it was certainly not the first time that I had heard of MIT.
MIT’s name is seemingly everywhere. You can read about new technology invented in its labs all the time in the news. In popular culture, Marvel’s Iron Man features a protagonist hero who called the campus his home. Sloan seems to fit the broader MIT image, with almost a third of the incoming Sloan cohort being engineers.
AN IMAGINATION RUN WILD
Like anyone interviewing for a grad program, I did my research. I read all the testimonials about what the graduates of Sloan were doing. I talked to alumni from the school, learning about their time there. I poured over employment data and student outcomes posted online. I felt as if I had a good handle on what it would be like to study there.
I imagined classrooms full of engineers and scientists. There would be a focus on precise, quantitative methods to tackling problems. Management practices would focus on the technical and measurable, as opposed to the softer side of leadership. It sounded like a vastly different experience than I’d had in business, let alone my American Midwestern background. My pitch was that I was different, and therefore could add value in the classroom.
Walking into the admissions office, I was met with a warm hello and an offer of some tantalizing fruity scones. They were home-made, brought in by one of the admissions representatives to wish us luck. I went to a lunch with current students who came from non-profits, government consulting, and politics. None of them had technical undergraduate degrees. My interviewer was friendly, making casual conversation about life in the area.
AN EPIPHANY GAINED
Looking back, feeling the ice-cold blast of the Charles River on my face as following my day at Sloan wasn’t the only shock of the day. I felt as if the Sloan I had experienced was an entirely different world than what I had expected. I completely misread the vibe of the culture at Sloan. As a result, I failed to appreciate what I could bring to the school.
You can’t say what you can add to a campus culture if you don’t understand each school’s “special sauce”. Measuring culture is a fool’s errand, and we can, at best, generalize about it. Yet I believe that the cultures at top programs are a main reason they remain perched atop the rankings. In the case of MIT, in trying to guess their “special sauce”, I ended up choosing the wrong flavor.
I had let my preconceptions of MIT’s undergraduate programs influence how I pictured Sloan. It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: the undergraduate and graduate programs are distinctly different. I’ve seen that be the case even when schools have an undergraduate business program alongside an MBA – or when undergraduates can take graduate coursework. Some MBA programs are more independent than others, but they have distinct cultures.
I’ve thought quite a bit about what else I could have done. Talking to people over the phone was insightful and gave me some excellent perspectives into life at Sloan. What stood out to me, however, was how the on-campus experience was so revealing. Being in the physical space of the school, talking to students in-person, and attending classes are experiences that can’t be replaced.
A HARD LESSON LEARNED
Beginning the process, I disregarded the need to visit in person. I thought independent research was enough. That was a flawed approach. If you really care about a school, going in person gives you a competitive edge. It helps you understand that “secret sauce” and explain how you could enhance it. How can we convince someone we fit at a school without being able to articulate what makes it special in the first plae?
Many of the posts on this website talk about self-knowledge as a top priority for applicants. I’d tend to agree. However, I feel like I over-invested in understanding my own goals and values. While I can articulate them authentically in an interview, interviewers will not be convinced by that alone. Linking one’s goals and values to those of an institution is the step we need to take to win over admissions committees at these schools.
I’d encourage you to think about where you might have biases about one school or another. Did you have a horrible boss who came from one school, and knocked them out of contention? Every school lets in some mistakes each year. Or maybe you’ve heard great things about a school’s wonderful sense of community? Maybe that’s due to special factors influencing the undergraduates like on-campus housing. We all have biases that influence how we view a given school.
Whether you are influenced favorably or unfavorably, biases are going to point us away from the truths about different MBA programs. The hard part is not being misled by our preconceptions into falsely assessing these schools. It’s up to us to identify our biases, face them, and do our best to mitigate their effect.
Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.
“This article was prepared by the author in his/her personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of their employer.”